Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s contentious relations reached a new low Sunday as Netanyahu delayed a bill meant to limit presidential pardons for terrorists.
The drama ended with the prime minister privately promising Bennett in a side meeting that the legislation will be brought to a ministerial vote next week and that he will support it, according to a Bayit Yehudi source. The pledge came after the sides exchanged some especially sharp barbs.
A senior Bayit Yehudi source called Netanyahu “a champion at releasing terrorists,” while a source in the Prime Minister’s Office commented that terrorists would not have been freed in the last round of negotiations with the Palestinians if it weren’t for Bennett.
According to an official who observed the government’s meeting, Netanyahu indicated that he was open to the bill, but did not commit himself to supporting it.
The presidential pardon bill was supposed to be part of a compromise between the Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid parties to get past their legislative deadlock of the last few weeks, in which each party would submit an appeal against the other’s bills.
According to the deal, each party would vote against the other’s controversial bills on Sunday and they would no longer block each other’s proposals with ministerial appeals. As such, a proposal allowing singles and samesex couples to become parents via surrogacy was approved by the ministers.
However, as item after item on the agenda went by in the cabinet meeting, Bennett became visibly agitated, asking several times, “what about our bill?” “There is no deal [with Yesh Atid] anymore. Netanyahu ruined it,” a Bayit Yehudi source said, adding that she is “annoyed that [the prime minister] gave in to pressure from the Left and [Attorney- General Yehuda] Weinstein.”
The legislation in question, proposed by Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked and MK David Tsur (Hatnua), was submitted in light of the prisoner releases in the latest round of talks with the Palestinians.
The bill would allow courts to sentence “special case” murderers to life in prison without an option of being pardoned by the president. It would apply only to those sentenced in the future, not current prisoners, who could still be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill last month, with Netanyahu’s support. But Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri appealed against it, as it could potentially limit options in future talks with the Palestinians.
The bill was supposed to go to a general ministerial vote Sunday, which it was expected to pass, but when it came up, Peri criticized the measure and Weinstein expressed concerns about the language of the law on two grounds: First, though the law’s purpose is ostensibly to prevent the release of ideological terrorist murderers, the language of the law could be interpreted in an overbroad fashion to apply to virtually any murderer.
Second, Weinstein objected that the discussion of the law appeared to have disregarded the highly respected Shamgar Commission, headed by former supreme court president Meir Shamgar, that had worked comprehensively on establishing criteria for prisoner transfers.
In particular, Weinstein was concerned that whereas the presidential pardons process considers long-term perspectives and unexpected major changes to the landscape, the proposed law would tie the government’s hands and appears to ignore changes to the landscape.
At Weinstein’s recommendation Netanyahu agreed to move the matter to the security cabinet, where ministers are to discuss the issue in light of the recommendations in the 2012 Shamgar report on prisoner releases. The matter will then move back to the government.
“Going back on your word like that in a cabinet meeting is a new low, even for [Netanyahu]. Some rules simply should not be broken,” another source close to Bennett said. “Choosing Lapid over Bennett [by bringing same-sex surrogacy to a vote but not limiting presidential pardons] means [Netanyahu] is showing his true colors, that he is really a leftist in disguise.”
A source close to Netanyahu said that the problem is now solved with the prime minister’s commitment to support the bill next week, but Bayit Yehudi obviously wanted to feed the flames for political gain.
Shaked told The Jerusalem Post that Shamgar is only tangentially related to the bill, because the panel reviewed options of releasing prisoners to bring back captive soldiers, whereas her legislation refers to freeing murderers as a part of diplomatic negotiations.
“I don’t know what got into [Netanyahu]; I really can’t explain it. But at least he’ll support the bill next week,” Shaked said.
Shaked added: “For the last year-and-a-half I and Bennett and Tsur and MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) wanted the government to discuss the Shamgar Committee, so at least we gained that.”
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this story.